The War Next Door
EVEN IN THE darkest months of the Gulf War, some of the most gruesome film footage shown on the evening news ironically took place not in the Persian Gulf but right here at home. The image of Los Angeles police officers last month brutally beating a defenseless citizen, Rodney King, woke the nation out of its post-Iraq euphoria and showed us the savage side of human nature. The picture of King's bruised face was comparable to the Iraqis' display of allied prisoners of war in the disgust and horror they both evoked.
Questions about the actions of our law enforcers are not limited to the case of the Los Angeles Police Department and its chief, Daryl Gates. At the Deer Island prison right here in Massachusetts, the events leading up to the death of an inmate, Arthur Mullally, are being examined as the accounts of inmates and guards differ dramatically.
In the wake of these troubling events, the public finds itself asking the ancient question, "Quis custodit custodes?"--who's guarding the guards? Indeed, there is, as Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) says, "a crisis of confidence in law enforcement."
Moreover, while our faith in law enforcement agencies wanes, our fear for our own personal safety grows. The recent burst of crime in Cambridge has driven this point literally home to Harvard students.
The law enforcement agencies appear to waver in two extremes. It seems that the police either use excessive force and brutality, or aren't around when they're needed.
A perfect solution for both problems is impossible. But there are ways the current situation can be improved.
THE RECENT BURST of crime corresponds, not coincidentally, with tough economic times across the country. When some people need money, they steal. When most cities, towns, and states need money, they cut police departments.
The state of the economy isn't going to improve in the near future. Nevertheless, leaders like President Bush and Gov. William F. Weld '66 should not use economic stagnation as an excuse to neglect social problems. While they probably cannot generate new income, politicians should reallocate the capital they have.
Bush, for his part, has little control over how state and local officials manage their law enforcement officers. But he can concentrate on the other side of the problem--poverty. Bush could redirect funds in favor of social programs designed to help the poor. The self-proclaimed "Education President" whose record on education is dismal at best, can try to mend the consequences of a failed education system. Those potentially tempted by the prospect of crime should be given the opportunity and the training for the job market. With this new "Pax Americana" at hand, the country has the resources to do so.
The governors can help Bush achieve these goals by reconsidering their own budget plans. California Gov. Pete Wilson, for example, has begun tightening his state's belt by cutting almost 10 percent from aid to poor mothers. Weld and Gov. Douglas Wilder of Virginia are both proposing decreases in funds for their states' public schools and colleges. While these cost-cutting measures may solve budget woes temporarily, they are regressive in the long run. They deny the poor the chance to break the cycle of poverty, and simply maintain the current economic status quo.
Moreover, Weld's decision to slash at least $500 million in local aid to Massachusetts cities and towns leaves mayors with few options other than to cut their police departments. That immediately eliminates opportunities to explore possible improvements in law enforcement, such as the creation of commissions to investigate charges of police brutality and better training programs.
Cuts also discourage commissioners from firing abusive officers from their already understaffed forces, and they place additional burden on the few remaining officers, who are already overworked, their effectiveness decreases. When they become less effective, the public's confidence in their police drops as well, resulting in lower morale for police. And the vicious cycle continues.
BUSH OFTEN ACCUSES liberals of naively believing that increased spending can magically solve problems. It doesn't. But the irony is that Bush himself opposes current legislation which would aim to prevent the impulsive purchase of handguns and the acquisition of these weapons by convicted criminals--without spending lots of money.
The Brady Bill, named after the Reagan aide shot and paralyzed in the 1981 attempted assassination of the former president, would establish a one-week waiting period for the purchase of handguns, during which the police would check whether the buyer has a criminal record. If their record is clean, the sale would be approved and all record of the background check would be destroyed. The bill obviously cannot prevent the purchase of weapons on the black market, but it would root out some potential handgun abusers.
The Brady Bill has been endorsed by 12 major law enforcement organizations. In a national poll, 87 percent of gun owners approved of the bill. Even Reagan--long considered a puppet of the National Rifle Association--has voiced his support for the bill. But Bush, unlike his predecessor, still needs the support of the all-too-powerful gun lobby, and has instead chosen to play political games with Congress. The president offered up his own bill to prohibit the domestic assembly of military-style semi-automatic weapons that are banned for import. Bush's bill is designed to offend nobody; as a result, it helps nobody.
Money and legislation cannot drive malice and evil from the human heart. Increased funds will not get rid of the Daryl Gateses of the world. And very few criminals fit the heart-rending description of Victor Hugo's Jean Valjean stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family.
But added emphasis on education and social programs will prevent decent people from taking desperate measures. Increased funds will enable law enforcement agencies to weed out the bad cops without decimating their departments, as well as relieve the stress and work-load of officers on the brink of burnout.
We've "won" the war over there. Now it's time to win the war at home.